Oil on unlined canvas. Stamped on reverse of canvas: atelier O'CONOR. Signed and dated at lower left: O'CONOR 93.
54 x 73.3 cms. (21 ¼ x 28 ⅚ in.)
Sold to a Private Collection.
PROVENANCE: the artist; his studio sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 7 February 1956; Private Collection; acquired by a Private Collection in 2003.
EXHIBITED: Paris, Salon des Indépendants, March-April 1893, no. 959, as La boule verte; Paris, Le Barc de Boutteville, Sixth Exhibition, from 2 March 1894, no. 37 as La boule verte.
Roderic Anthony O'Conor was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, the first son of Roderic Joseph O'Conor who was a Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of the county. The O'Conors of Milton traced their lineage back to Hugh O'Conor Don, the acknowledged representative of the last Kings of Ireland. Roderic received a classical education at Ampleforth College, near York, returning to Ireland in 1879 to enroll at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. After transferring to the Royal Hibernian Academy, the lure of the Continent took him in 1883 to the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp, where he studied under Charles Verlat. O'Conor moved to Paris in about 1886, became a pupil of Carolus Duran, and later joined the international artists' colony at Grez-sur-Loing. Unlike his peers, who adopted the Realist painter Bastien Lepage as their idol, O'Conor discovered the work of the Impressionists and Pointillists at an early date, and applied their methods to his own canvases of the late 1880's.
From Grez, O'Conor moved to the Breton town of Pont-Aven in 1891. The years which followed are widely regarded as the most important in his career, for he found himself propelled into a ferment of experimentation through daily contact with the followers of Gauguin. The latter, however was absent on his first trip to Oceania, and, when the two artists finally met in 1894, they were to become firm friends, as is evident from correspondence and a number of affectionate dedications on works which Gauguin presented to the Irishman. Gauguin even urged O'Conor to renounce civilisation and return to the South Seas with him, an invitation the former declined. Instead, O'Conor chose to keep Brittany as his base for another eight years, during which time he produced a group of Symbolist works and a remarkable series of seascapes painted in fiery colours.
O'Conor finally severed his ties with Brittany in 1904, when he took a studio in Paris and joined a circle of writers and artists who dined regularly at the Chat Blanc in Montparnasse. The group included Arnold Bennet, Clive Bell, Aleister Crowley and Somerset Maugham, amongst whom O'Conor was revered as the arbiter of progressive artistic taste. He play the violin (to himself), indulged his love of books by accumulating an extensive library, and invested the proceeds from the sale of the family estate in the American stock market. As O'Conor grew older, his art became increasingly studio-based, being comprised largely of nudes and still-lifes. An intimiste phase which took its inspiration from Bonnard gave way after the First World War to a style of expressive realism, distinguished by an extensive use of the palette knife. O'Conor associated in the 1920's with members of the School of Paris, such as Michel Kikoïne, Manuel Ortiz de Zarate andAndré Dunoyer de Sogonzac. In 1932, he married his model and mistress, Renée Honta, who was thirty-four years his junior. They moved out of Paris and spent their last years together in the sun at Torremolinos and Cagnes. To the end O'Conor resisted any attempts to publicise his achievements, believing that the pursuit of a reputation would compromise his artistic integrity. Posthumous fame did come, however, very swiftly after his life's work was dispersed at auction in Paris in 1956.
The present picture has been held in a private collection for the last forty-five years. Its re-emergence constitutes a event of genuine significance. Not more than five "striped" still-lifes by O'Conor were previously known - two of fruit, two of bottles, and one of flowers. Unlike these works, which are concerned with everyday domestic items, La boule verte has a more concentrated focus and features an object - a glass fishing float - not normally associated with the home. The picture makes no concessions to traditional painting styles and techniques, being deliberately avant- garde in conception, and ranking as one of the most abstract compositions he ever completed.
The identification of the subject-matter stems from the title of a work which O'Conor exhibited in March-April 1893, and again in the following year. This work had not previously been traced: however, the title is so unusual - meaning the green ball, or sphere - that it must logically pertain to this picture. The reflective surface of the ball, which catches in miniature the rectangle of bright light coming through the artist's studio window, is consistent with a shiny glass object. Coloured glass floats were widely used by fishermen at this time for marking at sea level the positions of sunken lobster pots. O'Conor would very likely have seen them being used at the fishing port of Concarneau, which was within easy reach of Pont-Aven. We know that he was sympathetic fowards the local fishing communities, for shortly after arriving in Brittany in 1891 he completed a series of studies of an old Breton fisherman. La boule verte was most probably not intended by O'Conor to convey any symbolic message: the float's placement, however, on a drape that has been folded and raised into wave-like shapes may well have been conceived as a visual pun.
Subject-matter apart, the most radical aspect of La boule verte is its pictorial style. The date of the work is 1893, when Gauguin, as has been mentioned earlier, was still absent from Brittany on his trip to the South Seas. However, other members of the School of Pont-Aven, such as Armand Séguin, Charles Filiger and Wladyslav Slewinski, befriended the Irishman and shared their Synthetist theories with him. The main tenet stated that the new art should "not copy nature too literally", recognising that "art is an abstraction" in Gauguin's words from a letter to Schuffenecker of 14 August 1888; in other words, a synthesis was necessary between the thing observed and the thing created. The art which flowed from this methodology was noted for its use of flattened, brightly coloured forms contained within bold outlines. O'Conor was far from adopting this pictorial style for himself. Instead, he applied colours in bold, rhythmic "stripes", juxtaposing complimentary hues and building up rich surface textures. By so doing, he stood out within the Pont-Aven School as an individualist, for Gauguin had stressed the importance of harmonious colours and is even reputed to have threatened Séguin with a gun if he dared to employ complimentary colours in his work.
O'Conor looked elsewhere for his allegiances. His distinctive "stripe" can ultimately be traced back to Van Gogh, who never visited Brittany but whose memorial exhibition held at Le Barc de Boutteville's Gallery in Paris in April 1892 was seen by the Irishman. The ribbons of viscous pigment which pulsated through Vincent's late canvases were echoed in the alternating "stripes" of bright colour - sometimes applied straight from the tube - which O'Conor consistently imposed on his landscapes, still-lifes and figure subjects between 1892 and 1894. He even used this method for painting the faces of some of his models, as in the Breton Peasant Woman knitting which is also a work of 1893. In later life, O'Conor acquired a Van Gogh etching of Dr. Gachet for his own collection, and descirbed the Dutchman's paintings as "wonderful examples of expression of character, pushed to the point of hallucination".
O'Conor's precocious understanding of Van Gogh - a good fifteen years before his pictures made any impact in Britain - impels historians of art to look for parallels within the Dutchman's œuvre. It is quite possible than, in making such an austere selection of objects for La boule verte, O'Conor had in mind one of Van Gogh's pictures which focuses on the minutiæ of nature and domestic life, such as a moth, a butterfly, a pair of clogs, or a couple of books. There is noting even remotely resembling a fishing float, however, to be found in Van Gogh's work. The choice of this particular object appears to be unique to O'Conor, and, moreover, when he completed the picture, all the evidence suggests that he knew it would be perceived by his peers as a bold and radical statement. A fierce critic of his own work, on this occasion we can be certain that the result pleased him because he showed the picture twice publicaly in successive years, firstly at the Salon des Indépendants in 1893. The second occasion - an exhibition of Impressionist and Symbolist painters at the Galerie Le Barc de Boutteville in 1894 - has been described as "the true cradle of modern painting". O'Conor was represented at this event by two works, La boule verte and Le paysage jaune, now in the Tate Britain. By exhibiting paintings with titles which referred to dominant colours, yellow and green, O'Conor devalued the identity of the subject-matter at the expense of its artistic treatment. Colour, line and shape were his expressive tools, next to which topographical detail and the copying of objects as such could only be seen as distractions. At least one contemporary commentator, the Symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, noted O'Conor's tendency to apply a random approach in his choice of subject-matter, concluding that the this strategy bolstered the timeless appeal of his art:
"O'Conor [distils his own version of beauty], the models suggested at siesta-time
by local people passing across the triangular public 'square' - in his case there is a
disdain towards making a choice at all, his belief being that the painter is
outside time and is, therefore, not concerned with place or space either."
(Mercure de France, no. 57, 1894)
It was the prerogative of the artist to construct a picture from a fishing float and some drapery, if he so chose. He had no need to explain himself.
27 April 2001